Sing it, sister!


(Because I feel that I didn’t have much to say about this novel, it has singlehandedly stalled all the reports for the books I’ve read since. So please forgive the cursory glance. There are other books I actually want to say something about.)

Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem is a quick read. By my estimate the book comes in around 26,000 words.

Don’t expect character development. Not really. Although the story is about a person discovering his own personhood in the world of the distant future where individuality has been all but eliminated, that individuality is never well expressed. Our narrator, Equality 7-2521, began as a curious and ashamed child, though presumably one in an adult’s body. By the end when he has reinvented the concept of self, the reader is not much closer to knowing who that self actually is than at the beginning. There is character transformation, but no character development.

I suppose that expecting more depth here is unrealistic. Rand, as usual, was not writing a story so much as writing a fable. She did this in her more well-known books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. We might care about the ideas, but never the characters. There’s ample evidence that this is exactly what she meant. Rand didn’t care if we liked or disliked Dagny Taggart, she didn’t even want us to identify with her as the protagonist. She told her stories from a distant perspective, as is fitting for a woman who described herself with the self-coined label Objectivist.

This becomes both problematic and powerful in Anthem. Here is a story told in the first person, presumably written by the protagonist. Yet the perspective Rand wants us to have is an objective one. The result is a story that feels contrived and inauthentic.

However, perhaps by accident, this supports the allegory and her thesis. Though the story of Equality 7-2521 is told from his perspective in the first person, it is almost entirely told in the first person plural, illustrating that this point in the future is one where the idea of the value of the individual is so suppressed that children don’t even learn the language for the first person singular. That Equality 7-2521 doesn’t seem to be a well-defined individual could be seen as the result of his culture’s active discouraging of any attributes of individuality. I’d like to believe that and choose to interpret it that way, but have trouble believing that the flatness of Equality 7-2521’s character was intended to be part of the allegory.

Troubling also is the sense, too often part of the experience of reading Ayn Rand, that one is reading a straw man argument. There are sometimes-subtle distinctions between taking an idea to a logical extreme to illustrate where that idea could lead and associating a current set of ideas with its caricature. It’s one thing to show where a path might lead; quite another to condemn the starting point for its association with possibilities one has only speculated.

So if Rand has given us a fable about the trap at the bottom of the slippery slope with Anthem it rings a bit hollow. Her vision of a world without individual identity is chilling, but we have little but her assertion that her allegory is an accurate picture of the future that awaits should we not heed her warning.

Reading interval: 
Sunday, 29 June 2014 to Tuesday, 7 October 2014